Food and table fellowship: Feed the needy

By Rev. Jacob Kanake —

The beloved nurse’s story

Father Jerry tells a story of a Frenchwoman; she was a trained nurse who devoted her life to caring for the sick and needy. This nurse was single and had no children. She offered selfless service to her villagers for many years before she died. The villagers organized to give her a beautiful funeral, a fitting tribute to the woman to whom so many villagers owed their lives.

The villagers wanted her to be buried in a Catholic cemetery but the parish priest pointed out that, because she was a Protestant, she could not be buried in the town’s Catholic cemetery. The villagers protested, but the priest was firm. During his serious illness, this nurse had also cared for him so it was not easy for the priest either. But the church canons were very clear; she would have to be buried outside the fence of the cemetery.

On the day of burial, the whole village accompanied the woman’s casket to the cemetery and buried her outside the fence. That night, a group of villagers, carrying shovels, sneaked into the cemetery and quietly moved the fence.

The church canon was obeyed during the day despite dividing the community united in grief. And later the villagers refused to be divided and set themselves to allow the nurse’s death to unite them into one community. During the night villagers were willing to extend the cemetery fence to unite the dead as they were also united.

From parables to miracles

For the last few weeks we have been learning about parables, their hidden meaning and why Jesus used them. In last Sunday’s parable, Jesus asked his disciples if they understood parables and how to apply them to grow the kingdom of God. The disciples answered an affirmative “Yes,” then Jesus encouraged them to use their old and new insights and self-awareness of their faith to grow the kingdom of God. In Chapter 10 Jesus had sent the disciples out to preach on their own to the “lost sheep of the House of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6); when they were reporting back and before Jesus responded, he was told that his cousin, John the Baptist, had been killed.

In today’s reading Jesus and his disciples sail to a lonely place but the crowd followed them; when Jesus saw the crowd, he abandoned his plan to attend to the need of the crowd.

John the Baptist’s death

Jesus and his disciples “went by boat to a deserted place” located on the bank of the sea of Galilee. The other Gospels suggest the location may be Bethsaida, Capernaum or Gennesaret.

John was imprisoned (Matthew 4:12, Mark 1:14) and killed around 29 AD (Matthew 14:1-12, Mark 6:14-27, Luke 9:9). John was murdered because he objected to Herod’s divorce of his wife so he could marry Herodias, the wife of his brother, Herod Philip. The Jewish laws did not allow this behavior (Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21). John the Baptist was courageous, he took the bull by the horns and that led to his death. I think we are aware most secular leaders do not like to be told to get their ducks in a row. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian, was killed—hanged—because of supporting the underground movement against the Nazis. Facing physical death, he said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.” A Christian call is a courageous spiritual conviction that demands that the believer should tell the truth as it is.

I had my share with a local chief that influenced my peers to discipline me for preaching on girls’ circumcision and creating awareness on HIV-AIDS in my community in 1986. My peers cried for my life; they came one evening to my parents’ home and forced me to go to an illegal peers’ night meeting. After a well-crafted deliberation, I was found guilty of teaching against cultural practice back then. I firmly defended Christian and scientific principles against the harmful cultural practice but they were not ready to listen. They frog-marched me half-naked at midnight as discipline; they proposed to frog-march me the entire night but they disagreed within 30 minutes and I left them and went home. Their action made my faith stronger. I continued to preach vigorously until that cultural practice lost its influence. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that Americans are racially divided at 9-11 a.m.; he was referring to religious worship. Can inclusive Christians be on the side of the minority as some politicians continue to promote racial divisions? The courageous Christians who stand with the minority might be prepared to pay a price of being different and wiling to bring God’s people together.

The Christians and the Jewish people often retreat to pray, to meditate or to be with God alone, a moment of spiritual intensity. Or perhaps Jesus wanted to contemplate on merging John’s ministry of repentance and his ministry of salvation by fire and the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, Jesus was interrupted by the crowd; they wanted to see him, to be healed or to be comforted! Or maybe some wanted to comfort Jesus upon hearing of John’s death. Jesus rose to the occasion; he preached, healed the sick and provided physical food. The fear created by Herod did not capture and control the compassion and generosity of Jesus toward the crowd.

The feeding miracle shows God can create something new, a life-giving food, and the kingdom of God is breaking in. We ought to never underrate what we have in terms of money, skill or strength; God can multiply it for us to use and for others to benefit. Did you notice characters in this miracle?

Miracle characters

Natural law or science are not able to explain miracles or “objects of wonder.” Miracles are extraordinary religious happenings that are only understood by faith. In the feeding miracle Jesus chose characters to play various roles:

The crowd

The Jewish culture was communally oriented. It was not hard to bring people together; it did not require formal invitation, there were no gate crashers. In this crowd some people may have been the disciples of John seeking moral and spiritual support. And those who knew John was the cousin of Jesus were there to support Jesus in his grief. And of course, some people were traitors seeking a subversive message from Jesus so they could accuse him to either the Jewish religious leaders or the Roman leaders. But, most people in the crowd may have been curious about Jesus’ preaching and healing. We could be wrong to imagine the entire crowd came to be preached or healed. In spite of their categories, Jesus did not discriminate against them; he did not ask questions; he preached to all of them and fed all of them equitably. Jesus’ ministry is fair and squarely inclusive to all who seek and practice it.

The disciples

Though the disciples had expressed understanding in previous readings, at first they tend be less involved in this miracle. Some of the disciples were concerned that the crowd was getting hungry, or getting home late to cook. During that time there were no ready-made drinks, punch, junk food, snacks, TV dinners. To put it simply, food required a long time to cook.

Furthermore, the disciples were worn out by the day’s work; they wanted to rest. One can sense their level of anxiety rising as they began to be quite tactical: they requested Jesus to let the people go “into the village to look for food.” Perhaps Judas, the financial officer, must also have said there wasn’t enough money to buy food for the crowd. Maybe the disciples were more concerned about themselves than for the crowd; maybe they had their own packed food and they wanted to eat, rest and plan for their dinner. When they asked Jesus to send the crowd away, Jesus told them point blank to “feed them.” The disciples answered by saying it was impossible to feed this many people, there was no money to buy food or time to organize a feeding program, which would also require particularly trained chefs to plan the menu and organize sitting and several servers.

The disciples did not understand what Jesus was getting at. However, St. Luke says Peter found a boy with his packed lunch and convinced the boy to offer his lunch to feed others. The boy had compassion! Maybe Jesus fed the crowd to teach his disciples compassion. Uncompassionate people approach any type of giving with a mindset of “if you give, then God will…” This is the wrong attitude for Christians. Jesus is teaching us to give generously without expecting anything in return. Jesus prayed for Christians to be moved by compassion for the needs that are present and attend to them without expecting any return. A compassionate giver is moved by a generous spirit, not a hoarding spirit. A compassionate giver’s faith is not about performance. It is about the giver’s heart attitude, an outworking of love that Christ puts in one’s heart. Christ is seeking for the believer to develop the culture of compassionate giving—giving wisdom, time, money and food and much more.

The food

During the time of this miracle the Jews’ food preparation followed Mosaic laws. The disciples may have had in mind that if people were sent into the village searching for food to buy, they would assess on their own if Mosaic rules on preparation were followed. It is not written that Jesus observed Mosaic law on food in this case. Instead Jesus inspired trust in the crowd and everyone was willing to forget the Mosaic food laws and ate fish and bread without asking where the food came from, or if it was safe—kosher.

Whatever food we give must adhere to whatever food we eat. The hosts does not cook disgusting food for the people because he/she is expected to eat with the guests. In my culture, the host tastes her/his food in front of the guest to declare food is fit for others. If the host bewitched the food, the host will die first.

Jesus uses food because the table fellowship makes people relax and share freely. Anthropologists say that a meal has a social language that breaks the barriers and welcomes the strangers. Meals provide people with unique ways to connect. Food can transform and unite strangers into a community, the community that unites in needs for each other. The sharing of our food and the Good News with others transforms and make us fully ourselves in the company of the Holy Spirit. Through the use of food, we have witnessed the transformation of communities in our time like the teaching of Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Dorothy Day, among others. If we move on sharing what we have, God promises to meet our needs and the needs of others (Phil 4:9).

Today we share the Holy Communion and unite to be one community of faith and practice. We aspire to move the barriers or fences to include the outsiders in our lives. In this miracle Jesus is challenging the disciples to welcome non-Jews into their ministry. I know the Holy Communion inspires in a Christian the vision of liberation and reconciliation. To receive the bread and wine is also to participate in the nourishment and vision of the kingdom of God that makes breaking racial barriers possible.

If Jesus was to use food to explain a teaching today, he would tell us the type of food he is referring to, whether junk or organic, because in our time food has turned to be poison. Today food preparation does not follow the natural rules. My guess is that Jesus would talk of organic food and teach on the methods to prepare a healthy diet. In this teaching Jesus is seeking a culture of generosity in our community, in our family and individually. This teaching is relevant today because most people have lost a sense of community and there are others who do not love even themselves.

The child

It is not easy to take a child’s food away; the parents of the boy in the story must have taught him to be generous in sharing. Or perhaps the disciple had convinced the boy that Jesus wanted to bless the food or perhaps Jesus wanted to pray for it or something like that. Let us hope the food was not snatched away from the boy, as Jewish culture of the time expected young children to obey their elders and to do what they were told without questioning! This child offered his food freely; otherwise Jesus would have cautioned the disciples.

Jesus said elsewhere that children are innocent and we ought to be like children in our deeds. He used children on occasion to teach equality and inclusivity, a lesson extended in this story. We all get excited when a child is willing to share their belongings with others freely. This miracle teaches me that the Kingdom of God is for all, regardless of age or status.

Our mission

What fences can we break down in our lives to unite with others? As the Falcon Heights community, we recently vowed to break down racial fences, employment discrimination and housing discrimination, and agreed to share with those who have less or nothing. Each of us may self-assess to realize the secretly held fences that divide and bring division between the individual and others. The goal is to let those dividing views break down so one can unite and be united.

Jesus encourages compassion, mercy, selfless giving and communal sharing. Jesus first encourages the disciples to obey God in believing food for the crowd can be available, and to also accept that God would use Jesus to do a miracle. The disciples obeyed Christ; they asked the people to sit down; they requested the little bit of food from the owner. Therefore, breaking the dividing fences frees people to feed others with spiritual and physical needs, so we can be Christ to others despite their situations.

Jesus’ motive in this miracle is to see a change in the hearts of the people so they can learn the scripture. He is not so much concerned about physical food as spiritual food, for he who eats the physical food will hunger and thirst again but he who eats spiritual food will continue being satisfied and nourished (John 6:35). The spiritual food can cater to physical need also.

During that time, the wealthy Jews and Romans lived in luxury but the common people labored or begged for food. The Roman government or Jewish elites did not provide a food pantry or social welfare, a political tool in our society. Jesus enters the human situation and decides to provide a free meal to the worshippers. The motive of the teaching is not free food but a lesson on sharing, commitment, and obedience.

We have a choice to make because Christian faith is not about performance, it is about our hearts’ attitudes. And, generosity is an outworking of the love of Christ that has been placed in our hearts. If we allow God to change our hearts into hearts that are generous, then no longer is the issue about how much, or what our responsibility is. It is about where we can show love by being generous. How we can be moved by inner compassion for the people who seem to be without a shepherd—leader—Christ. The teaching reminds us of working toward our comfort and the comfort of others. This week we will prepare sandwiches and distribute them to the homeless and the needy. We are acting on Jesus’ words, “Give them something to eat,” and that is sharing a prophetic action to challenge modern-day stinginess. Whereas some politicians are negative about the poor people, Christians ought to show a calm demeanor and approach human hunger with the handle of faith. The mature Christian faith is better expressed in action and is better lived in practical terms.

Jesus asks that we extends mercy and compassion to hungry people without discrimination like he did in this miracle. Sometime one wonders if Jesus would approve what some religious organizations and their followers do to each another like refusing to share Holy Communion or to allow people of the same sex into leadership or rituals. God is teaching us compassion, inclusivity in our mission.


The blind man is healed: everyone else turns a blind eye

By the Rev. Jeff Crews — So, what is today’s reading from John (John 9:1-41) all about? Is it about punishment for sin? Is it about light and dark? Is it about healing? Is it about the blind man now seeing? Is it about the Pharisees grilling the blind man because they were trying to trap Jesus? Is it about mud? Is it about parents who turn their backs on their child? Is it about religious authorities threatening to kick someone out of the synagogue if they supported Jesus? Is it about a brave man, once blind, who stood up to the religious authorities? Is it about the Pharisees becoming angry because Jesus called them blind? Or is it about Jesus, the Son of Man, who brings transformation in Lent? What do YOU think this long story is all about?

Well, let’s ask the guidance of the Spirit as we think about these things together. Will you pray with me? “God of light, of laughter, of life, and Lent, we come humbly before you today and ask that your Spirit teach us about Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith. May the words of our mouths and thoughts in our hearts be guided by your everlasting love. Amen.”
In our scripture lesson today we listened to a story about a blind man and many conversations that occur about and with the blind man who now sees. But the entire story starts with a very intriguing question from the disciples in verse 2. “Why is this man blind? Was it punishment for his parent’s sin or his sin?”

This is the question of the ages, really. Why do bad things happen to good people? For me, the converse is even harder. Why do good things happen to bad people? This age-old question is the question Job asked. “Why is this stuff happening to me, God?” Job’s “friends” scolded him, “Well, you must have done something to make God angry.” But Job replied, “No! I’ve been good! This stuff is just happening!” Finally, in exasperation, Job asks God, “Why are you doing this to me?” And God replies to Job the same way Jesus replies to the disciples here, “You are asking the wrong question.” What? That’s it? So what is the right question?

When bad stuff happens, what is the right question, folks? How do you respond to bad stuff? How do we respond? If our God means anything to us, our God must have an answer to this age-old question. We are going to look several places for an answer today. First, we will look at the story of Job, where God told Job that things just happen and humans will never fully understand—only God is God and we are not. While this is certainly an answer, it is not very satisfying. In fact, it feels like Mom saying to us, “Because I said so.” Ugh. The second place we will look is our lectionary passages for today, where the Psalm for today is the 23rd Psalm. The uplifting Psalm we love so well is a response to the previous 22nd Psalm’s question where the Psalmist asks, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In other words, why is bad stuff happening to me, God? The answer to this question is in the 23rd Psalm, and in particular, verse 4. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you, God, are with me.” God does not promise to fix things for us if we pray hard enough. Instead, God promises to always walk with us. Always. So what this means is that when bad stuff happens, for whatever reason, God will always be with us. God will not abandon us. There is immense comfort in that. We are never alone. The third place we will look for an answer is in our passage today, in how Jesus responded to the disciple’s question in verse 2 and the Pharisee’s question in verse 40. First, Jesus tells them both they are asking the wrong question because the question infers that God punishes us for sin. But Jesus says stuff happens not for punishment, but to allow God to be revealed to us, or, as Jesus phrases it, to move from night into light. Now, I will admit, I read verse 41 a dozen times and had no idea what Jesus was really saying. “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,” your sin remains.” What? So, I went to the ancient Greek. Sure enough, that is a pretty good translation of the Greek. But I was still confused. So I started looking at other translations for help, and I found the trans-literation by Eugene Robinson called The Message to be the most helpful. That translation says in the angry response of the Pharisees demanding of Jesus, “Are you calling us blind?” Jesus responded, “If you were really blind, you would be blameless, but since you claim to see everything so well, you’re accountable for every fault and failure.” Here Jesus says that we are not punished by bad stuff happening in our lives, but rather, we are held accountable by how we walk with God and respond to the stuff that happens to us.

So now let’s go back to our original question, armed with these three responses. Why do bad things happen to good people? From Job we get, “Just because. God is God. Stuff happens.” From the 23rd Psalm we get, “Stuff happens, but God will always be with us, no matter what, so we need not be afraid.” And from Jesus here we get, “God will always be with you, and God will be revealed in your loving response to the bad things in your lives.”

I don’t know about you, but the past few months have deeply tested my faith. How could we elect a President and congress so far from the truth of what Jesus taught as the Gospel? Where is God in this horrible mess? This passage teaches us the answer. God is right here with us in this mess. We are the hands and feet of God in this world. The Gospel challenges us to respond to bad stuff like hate and anger with love and compassion. When bad stuff happens, Christ followers respond in love, mercy, justice, and kindness.

So now, when you hear a televangelist say God is punishing us for our sins with a hurricane or storms or disease, you know Jesus said that is totally false. Stuff happens. And God shows up in how we live our lives in our response to the hurricane, in our response to the storm. God shows up in our response to our pastor retiring, or losing a love one, or something bad at work. Our passage today shows us there are two ways to respond to stuff. The people and then his parents responded to the blind man’s healing by rejecting Jesus. They did not believe Jesus. On the other hand, look at the series of responses from the once-blind man. At first he said “a man called Jesus” healed him. Later he calls Jesus a “prophet,” and finally he confesses Jesus as the Son of Man, a Jewish way of saying savior. While the blind man’s eyes are slowly opened in the story, the people and Jewish leaders become more and more blind. So here is the question our passage asks without ever using these words: What do YOU think of Jesus? [pause] The Gospel of John uses the word “sin” only in the singular. There is only one sin according to John: rejecting Jesus. When I grew up, my friends all went to a strict Baptist church. They had a long list of sins, all making moral mistakes like drinking, smoking, dancing or playing cards. But the Gospel of John rejects that, saying all moral laws are just social rules. The only real sin is rejecting Jesus.

So, here is the Good News. God loves you. Really loves you, even when bad things are happening to you. God will not abandon you. Ever. God loves you and invites you to live your life responding to the world in loving ways, even when bad things happen. No matter how much bad stuff happens, how much blindness is on your life, if you turn to Jesus and God, you will find your way through the darkest valley with God by your side. And as you follow Jesus, the blindness will fall from your eyes, and you, just like the blind man in our story, will begin to see.
[sing…] “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but NOW I see.” And God’s people say, “Amen.”

Acceptance and affirmation

A sermon conversation with the Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis and the Rev. Philip Rohler (John 4:5-26; 39-42) —

Anne Swallow Gills (ASG): About a year ago, Philip Rohler began worshiping with us. I’ve invited him to join me in a conversation about today’s scripture reading, in part because of his concern for and support of those who are marginalized in our society and often in our churches. And if anything, today’s story from the Gospel of John is about a marginalized person encountering a welcoming and nonjudgmental Jesus. The layers of this woman’s marginalization may be hard for us to imagine in this day and age. Samaritans did not regularly intermingle with Jews, even though they came from the same ancestry. Their dispute centered on where, upon what locale, does God want to be worshipped. For Samaritans, it was Mt. Gerizim in today’s West Bank; for the Jews it was Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. It was a bitter family fight. Think of it as similar to the hatred and disdain between Protestants and Catholics down through the years. In addition, a revered rabbinical teacher like Jesus would be considered ritually defiled by having contact with Samaritans, and even more so by contact with a woman not related to him. And, there is this pesky detail about her drawing water from the communal well at noon-time. Has she been shamed and banished from mingling with the other women in the cool of the morning? Even more reason for Jesus to steer clear of this person.

The unusual dialogue between Jesus and this unnamed woman quickly moves from a simple request about a drink of water to an intimate exchange about spiritual thirst, wellsprings of living water within a person, and a revelation of some details about her life. It appears many husbands have either died on this woman or divorced her, and she currently lives with someone not her husband. This may draw a yawn from us, but it was scandalous in Jesus’ time. He calls her out on this reality. He names her marginalization within her culture and community, but interestingly doesn’t dwell on it. He sees her as a person worthy of conversation, of receiving spiritual nurture and invites her to interact with him. No judgment; no shaming. Her marginalization stops there.

At our congregational meeting following worship today, members will be asked to vote on an expanded and renewed statement which clarifies not just our welcome, but our support and advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer and questioning individuals. We are entering a period of our nation’s history when the rights and safety of this marginalized community are endangered. A retired pastor, Philip has been involved in our Executive Board-appointed Opening and Affirming Group. This group has worked over the recent months to expand this church’s welcome and support of the LGBTQ community. We’ve held after-church forums to explore Biblical views around these issues, and also to better understand gender identity, gender expression, and gender nonconformity so we welcome and support transgendered people. Philip, will you share with us just why it is you wanted to get involved in this church and in this particular working group?

Philip Rohler (PR): After learning about FHC on the website and attending for a year, I’m happy to say I have been warmly welcomed, and I’m glad I have become involved.

Thirty years ago my biological family began to understand in deeply personal ways what it meant for a family member to begin to live in a lesbian relationship. After she and my brother were divorced, they both have remarried. She to her wife and he to his new wife. When my mom was on her deathbed, she invited this former daughter-in-law to visit, and I had the privilege of witnessing their laughter, tears, and my mom’s loving affirmation of her.

In another conversation during her last weeks of life, my mom, knowing she could not do it but wanting us to know what was in her heart, said to my son and me, “Make an appointment for me to visit the president of your denomination; I’ll tell him that the Church will someday change their views about the LGBTQ community, and he should begin giving leadership to that now.”

ASG: Help us get a sense of what it’s like to be part of a denomination that would not consider affirming the kind of Opening and Affirming Statement we will vote on today.

PR: Last week as I was reflecting on today’s gospel text and on my opportunity to join you in this sermon conversation, I watched a TED talk video entitled “I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church – Here’s why I left.” A young woman told her story of growing up in the fundamentalist church that taught her to hate any person or group that the leaders of the Westboro church told her were sinners; those sinners, she acknowledged, were people of any different religious, ethnic and life-orientation background. That was very similar to the church in which I grew up, and maybe others in this congregation did too.

ASG: Is this the kind of stance your denomination was taking towards homosexuality, when you were ordained by that church?

PR: No. When I became active in 1973, the denomination had just decided that women were not prohibited in Scriptures from being ordained clergy and leaders in a local church. The new church culture was affirming women who had been marginalized in ministry, a culture in which I openly participated.

While I served as a pastor in town and country churches for 28 years, I enjoyed freedom in Christ, including interfaith and inter-church involvements in the communities where I served. Then about 10 years ago, the pendulum began swinging from openness and inclusiveness to exclusiveness. This was keenly made public several years ago when an ordained pastor and a local congregation were dismissed from fellowship in the denomination because they welcomed members of the LGBTQ community into membership and leadership. And it was reinforced that clergy were prohibited from performing a same-sex marriage.

This shift highlights why I was looking for and found in FHCUCC: a spiritual community where I shared values for ministry and for encouraging a person and the congregation to go deeper into the freedom of Christ, to love our neighbor as self and to put into practice the scripture that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free, but that all are one in Christ.

ASG: At the end of today’s story, this once marginalized woman has returned to her community and boldly told them that she has been encountered and seen by this Jesus: “He told me everything I have every done,” she enthusiastically exaggerates. In receiving Jesus’ non-judgmental acceptance of her, she herself has become a source of living water for her community. We too are invited to do the same. Today we have yet another opportunity to step forward and say: This is who we are at Falcon Heights Church. We are welcoming, supportive and ready to advocate for this specific marginalized community which has been scorned and rejected by so many churches. We too become sources of living water, as God’s spiritual waters gush up to abundant life within us, and flow out from us. Thanks be to God! Amen

Building the Beloved Community

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — The beginning of Jesus’ public ministry is remarkable for what he does NOT say. One might expect him to jump right in with “Hello everybody, now I want you to love one another!” Or perhaps an admonition to act decent, caring, kind; something manageable on a person-to-person level. Why doesn’t he start there? Some days it seems to me that contemporary Christianity as we know it gets reduced to a warm fuzzy version of the love part. Or, maybe more to a small tangent of loving, which is polite, which is calming and not offensive, which is nice. But Jesus doesn’t start with talking about love. As much as we may say it is all about loving one another, Jesus does not begin with this interpersonal message. Instead, he goes bigger: He speaks of life in the public square. He goes right to the root of what “public” means: how we order our lives together as a group, how we govern ourselves because of who governs us. In a time when politics has sharply divided us as a nation, we so want the Jesus story to NOT be about politics.

But the Gospel of Matthew wants his readers to know that Jesus’ public ministry begins after he hears of a public and politically motivated act against John the Baptist. Jesus learns that John, his cousin and most likely his spiritual mentor, has been arrested and jailed by the local political ruler King Herod. Jesus leaves his home town and heads to Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. And, from that time on, writes the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus begins proclaiming “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Jesus starts with a message about…politics! About governance, who is in charge and about how choices are made in this public realm. He says that the kingdom that rules the heavens, the reign of God, has come near. Not words that King Herod, nor the Roman Empire, would want to hear. The first public words out of his mouth are a radical political proclamation about our life together as a body, polis, community. And these words will eventually pit him against the political powers of the day and get him arrested and jailed and crucified. To simply spiritualize these words may put us at a safe distance. We can speak in generalities about God’s merciful love coming near and making everyone friendly and happy. But we will gain little insight into how in the world we navigate this time in our nation’s history as both citizens and Christians.

We are on the edge of a communally fraught week for our nation: on Monday, we celebrate a national holiday acknowledging the ground-breaking ministry and political proclaiming of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We do so in an era when racial inequity around housing, jobs, rates of imprisonment and health care, and resulting racial tension, continue to soar. Dr. King coined the phrase “the beloved community.” He spent his public life addressing the interwoven realities of racism, militarism and poverty, which he claimed conspired together to keep our nation from being such a community. All this, at the height of the Vietnam War. On Friday, we will witness the inauguration of a president whose election continues to cause deep, angry and chaotic divisions in our country. This is the reality, the context, into which this Matthew passage drops today.

The passage also lands in our Epiphany time, the season after Christmas when the light of Christ becomes an “epiphany,” a “manifestation” to the world. For the moment, whoever we may have voted for, it just doesn’t seem like there is much light. I resonated with Walter Bruggeman’s words this week. He is a retired Hebrew Bible scholar, author of over 70 books, and minister in the United Church of Christ. Here is the first part of his poem called: “Epiphany.”

On Epiphany day,
we are still the people walking.
We are still people in the dark,
and the darkness looms large around us,
beset as we are by fear,
loss —
a dozen alienations that we cannot manage.

I would say, as a nation and as communities, we still are “people in the dark,” with much darkness looming “large around us.” With “a dozen alienations that we cannot manage.” In the midst of all this, we encounter Jesus again, who keeps saying heaven is coming near. And then he does this very odd thing of going up to a couple of fishermen and saying, “Follow me; I will make you fishers of people,” and the guys drop everything, I mean everything, and follow him. Leaving nets and catch and boats and family? Not a prudent move, it would appear. What are we to know here, those of us who feel like we are walking in the dark at the moment?

Jesus begins to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near, is at hand.” Actually, this is the same thing John the Baptist has been saying. It’s a call for a change of heart, a change of behavior. Why? Because something has been tripped into motion. The kingdom of heaven is on the move, so to speak. The Greek word for kingdom is “basileia” and is translated in a number of different ways. Which means that Biblical scholars argue a lot about what this means: kingdom, rule, reign, empire. Throughout Hebrew scriptures, Jews spoke of God the king as creator and savior and judge, and that God’s kingdom/empire is already fully functional in heaven/the unseen realm. Jews were constantly getting in trouble with the prevailing authorities, the current occupying powers, because of this sense of covenant with, allegiance to, God’s empire.

The New Testament scholar Warren Carter has written how in first century usage, the word “basileia” also referred “to empires like Rome’s that assert rule over people and land. The Gospel’s use of the same term illustrates a common practice among colonized peoples.” He notes that people often cope with “imperializing power by using native traditions to redefine its language to produce a similar yet different meaning.” I see this as a sly and ultimately subversive approach, often used by the seemingly powerless or marginalized. We’re going to take back that word, “basileia,” empire, and apply it to God’s empire coming among us! We see this in the LGBTQ community: We’re going to take back that word “queer” and apply it to ourselves with pride! In the Matthew passage, Carter continues, the “writer imitates imperial language and structures (God’s dominating power) yet redefines them as the subsequent scene of Jesus’ healing and liberating power displays.”

Jesus, the unknown carpenter’s son from Nazareth, wanders in on the public scene and starts to indirectly talk politics. One might say, Jesus is referring to regime change. God’s kingdom, reign of justice, mercy and peace is happening here. Now. The “beloved community” God intends is at hand, it draws near. Jesus is going to start acting like his very presence, his teaching, his healing work, extends this regime change and reveals it. And who does he invite to join him first? Fishermen. Not the local bakers, artisans or tax collectors. All three gospels, Matthew, Luke and Mark, tell us his first students, followers, are fishermen. This is significant because the fishing industry of the time was more fully embedded in the imperial Roman economy that just about anything else. Warren Carter describes how “Rome asserted control over the land and sea, their production, and the transportation and marketing of their yields with contracts and taxes.” Boats, nets, your catch, where you pulled up your boat, who you sold to, prices, all regulated by the empire who also takes a huge cut. Professor Carter continues: “Jesus disrupts these men’s lives, calls them to a different loyalty and way of life, creates a new community, and gives them a new mission (fish for people). His summons exhibits God’s empire at work, this light shining in the darkness of Roman-ruled Galilee.” Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of people. Now we move to the relational, the building of this beloved community. It’s going to be about how we live together, govern ourselves under God’s rule.

Carter also notes that Jesus will go on and heal people who have actually been physically damaged by living in the inequities of the Roman imperial system. At least 70 to 90 percent of the inhabitants of the region were living in poverty. Food insecurity, unclean drinking water, social stress, poor nutrition, frequent imprisonment and hard physical labor just to survive. Many of the illnesses that Jesus will cure are caused by these kinds of unjust conditions: body weakness and paralysis, blindness, mental instability, fevers. Professor Carter bluntly puts it this way: Jesus comes and starts to “repair imperial damage.” Jesus “enacts God’s life-giving empire.” When I read this, all of a sudden the healing stories of Jesus seemed more radical, more seditious, than I ever imagined. I also realized how closely these conditions of first century people’s lives parallels that of people of color in this nation today.

Martin Luther King Jr. called our nation to repair “imperial damage” of centuries of racism, militarism and poverty. And it was very hard for much of our nation to hear him. And the damage continues. How will we be about “damage repair” in the next four years? Let’s keep talking and praying about this. The rest of Walter Bruggeman’s poem is a starting point, as we begin this significant week:

We are — we could be — people of your light.
So we pray for the light of your glorious presence
as we wait for your appearing;
we pray for the light of your wondrous grace
as we exhaust our coping capacity;
we pray for your gift of newness that
will override our weariness;
we pray that we may see and know and hear and trust in your good rule.
That we may have energy, courage, and freedom to enact
your rule through the demands of this day.
We submit our day to you and to your rule, with deep joy and high hope.

And so may it be. Amen.

Another look at “faith”

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis – I had an interesting discussion with the parents of our confirmation students the other night. Midway now through working with our five 7th-9th graders, I wanted to better understand their parents’ hopes and expectations, given that they were each requiring their child to attend. What struck me in our conversation was not a stated desire for their youth to believe certain Christian doctrine. Nor were they particularly concerned about their 12-, 13-, 14-year olds assuming responsibilities of adult membership in the church at this age. What the parents wanted for their kids was for them to be able to identify and talk about the questions that the kids have this point in their young lives. Questions of meaning and purpose and how does one come to one’s own conclusions about God and this complex and confusing world. Questions about their emerging identity as a young person, and how their own intellect and conscience might come to judge religious belief and practice. Questions about the ideas their parents and schools and church have taught them. The parents wanted their kids to be able to identify “the enduring questions” that will be with them through life, as one mom put it. To attain some tools for exploring these questions that will be part of their life-long spiritual journeys.

These parents’ concerns resonated with me, and reflect a growing practice within the wider United Church of Christ: helping our youth explore the difference between confirming and conforming (see “Confirm Not Reform” curriculum from Logos Productions). Part of developing one’s own sense of personal identity is to take a hard look at ways we have been urged/forced to conform. How might young people identify and deconstruct some of these beliefs? As a middle-school student, I myself proclaimed that I was an “atheist.”  But I don’t remember anyone actually asking me: “Anne, what idea or image of God do you not believe in? What might be some other ways to think about God and why you are here on earth? And what difference might this make in the way you see the world, make moral choices?” At the time, no one asked me these questions.

For several centuries now, the practice of confirmation in the Protestant church has been about a young person’s education in the proper doctrine or beliefs of the church, so the youth could adequately understand and “confirm” the faith professed by his or her parents at baptism. During infant baptism, we ask the parents if they themselves believe and trust in God, in Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and if they will raise the child within the nurture of the Christian church. Confirmation class was the time to learn about and then publicly testify to these beliefs. Little attention was paid to the fact that developmentally, young people need to learn to reflect critically on beliefs, faith and values given to them by parents, church and society.

All of this is rather curious, when I look at the Biblical record of how Jesus of Nazareth actually interacted with people. He never seemed big on doctrine or beliefs. He had this knack for going up to people and saying, “Follow me,” and they would. He certainly didn’t check out their “faith status” first. But in his conversations with his closest followers, those called his disciples, he speaks specifically about their faith. What did he mean by this word, “faith?”

From our brief Luke passage today, we hear Jesus’ disciples make what sounds like a reasonable request:  “Lord, can you increase our faith?!” Jesus has just been talking privately with them about the extraordinary demands of following him. In conversation right before this, Jesus insists they were to continually forgive one another: be mutually accountable, lovingly rebuke where necessary, apologize and make amends. “Do this seven times a day, if you have to.” Apparently, living fully in God’s Kingdom was more complicated than they had imagined. “If someone repents, you must forgive,” Jesus pushes them. To which they understandably respond: “Good grief, we are going to need more of something to do this. Jesus, can you give us more faith!”

Jesus responds in an odd manner: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” There is something in the sharpness of Jesus’ answer, the bizarre exaggeration of his images about small seeds and huge deeply rooted bushes, that leaves me wondering if the disciples, and maybe I, have missed the point somewhere. Is this about more faith? Is quantity the issue here? Or might Jesus be using common images in a cryptic and indirect manner so he can unsettle our assumptions about faith? The disciples appear to assume that faith does come in different quantities: If I have the right amount, I can face the challenges of following you, Jesus. I can valiantly change the world!

So what is “faith” here? Are we talking about faith like a super power, so I can then somehow manipulate an even bigger super power? I wonder if Jesus turns to irrelevant references like tiny mustard seeds and huge mulberry bushes and tossing foliage into the sea because…the disciples are asking an irrelevant question. It may not be about an amount of faith. I sense that Jesus may have been telling them they had all the faith they needed.

Maybe the disciples’ question should have been, “Jesus, we need some help here understanding how following you works, about how to be and act faithful. Jesus, we need some help in learning how to trust God, to trust in God’s steady presence and unfolding plan even when things look bad.” They may already have this thing they think they need. A connection with this transforming God, which they need to learn to trust. This may be at the core of what gets us confused: We hear the word “faith” and think it is about “belief” – an idea or concept we have to get our brain to accept. Yet the word “faith” in Biblical times carried deeper connotations of trust, as in “to have confidence in.” The disciples may have lost track of what they already had. I hear this echoed in the Apostle Paul’s letter, written years later, as he reaches out from his prison cell to a young co-worker Timothy: “You do not have a spirit of cowardice or fear,” he writes in this mentoring letter 2 Timothy. You have, he says, “a source of power and love and self-discipline.” You have it. Lean into it, engage it, Paul urges his leader-in-training. Guard this “good treasure entrusted to you….this treasure of faith that comes down from your mother and your grandmother and lives in you,” he counsels Timothy. Paul speaks of a legacy of trusting, of acting with confidence in God’s presence and strength. How might we have faith to do the hard stuff in life?

Perhaps when a congregation such as ours is faced with overwhelming challenges like addressing racial inequities, we might question: “How do we have the faith to do this? How do we ‘guard the good treasure entrusted’ in us from generations past here at Falcon Heights Church UCC and throughout our denomination? How do we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us?” Because clearly, one of the ongoing legacies of this church has been an abiding concern for those who live in poverty and for racial inequity, a deep passion for those who don’t have enough proper food, school, jobs or heath care. This kind of caring and outreach have been part of Falcon Heights Church’s identity since its formation in the late 1940s. This is about a level of faithfulness, of trust that we are called by God to do these things and that our actions make a difference. We allow the inherent fruitfulness of God’s creative justice and power to affect how we perceive and respond to life.

In these days of increased racial tension and deeper awareness about some of the problems in how we keep our communities safe, we are challenged to have trust in God’s creative justice and power to make changes in our community. I saw that kind of faith-trust in action as we hosted the panel discussion on new directions for community policing here in this packed sanctuary this last Thursday. Members of our Executive Board served as greeters, welcoming the diverse group of attendees. A number of you listened, learned and stayed around to talk with different people in the overflow crowd. Tough questions were asked, and were respectfully responded to by the panel, which included the president of the St. Paul NAACP chapter and a retired St. Paul police sergeant. Important data about racial inequities in policing were shared by one of our former members of the Minnesota House of Representatives and the local legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. We were urged to continue to ask questions about police training and policing policies and to trust that our concerns would be addressed. We were reminded to support our police in the tremendously hard job that they do on our behalf. We were challenged to step out in greater trust, in greater faith, trusting in one another and our ability to work for changes in our community and to heal these injustices.

Jesus seemed to think the disciples’ problem wasn’t about an amount of faith; it was about the ways they were with one another, and with God. He was concerned about their level of trust and patience, honesty and forgiveness. Each Sunday we worship together we renew our commitment to faithful action beyond our walls. We do this as by nurturing these relationships among us. We are here, “rekindling our faith,” our ability to trust in God’s good future together. Thanks be to God. Amen.



Seeing the seeds of hope

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — It’s been difficult to digest the news this week: from knifings in nearby St. Cloud, shootings and community outrage in Tulsa and Charlotte, to department store killings near Seattle. It’s hard to tear my attention away from this progression to even contemplate the increased bombing of the city of Aleppo in Syria. Where is God in all this? Where am I, where are we as a congregation in yet another string of distressing world events? Is life some kind of ongoing battle that we will win or lose, as we worry about and brace ourselves against adversaries, enemies, all around us? Is the seeming precariousness of life a matter of luck or chance? How much control do we imagine we have over the fragility, the vulnerability of life, in the midst of a week like this?

Part of why I keep reading the Bible is that it challenges my ingrained way of thinking about the world. It shakes me off of my surface perceptions, pushing me to question and move deeper into life’s meaning and purpose. Yes, the Bible can be a confusing, sometimes violent, often obscure and even annoying book. In our tradition, we endeavor to read it in its historical context, using the best tools of modern scholarship to figure out what the various authors had in mind in their context, and how this might speak to us today. We say the various writings are “inspired” but are not the literal word of God. N.T. Wright, the Anglican Biblical scholar, suggests it is a mistake to assume the Bible is full of rules and regulations to be obeyed and creeds to be believed. Not so, says Wright. Nor is it a compendium of abstract and timeless truth, or a collection of witnesses to events. So, what’s left? Narrative, Wright answers. Stories of interactons between God and people. Narrative about God holding people accountable through compassionate judgment, then showing mercy to and remaking the world. Narrative where the first two acts are written, says Wright: the unfolding emergence of the Jewish tradition and the ministry of Jesus and the early church which grows out and expands that tradition. We, as the present-day followers of Jesus, are the actors in this unfolding story: now told to imagine, create and play out the third act of this drama ourselves.

The ancient narratives provides hints about where God is and what our next steps are, in the middle of all our current muddles and mess as humanity. Where might this passage from the prophet Jeremiah, from the 6th century BCE, take us? For context, the northern kingdom of Israel has already fallen to the invading brutality of the Assyrians. The southern kingdom of Judah, home of Jerusalem and location of the Jeremiah story, is still intact but now besieged. The puppet king Zedikiah has ignored the impending invasion and frantically tries to align with Egypt. Jewish people, rich and poor, have crowded in desperation to the fortified city walls of Jerusalem; food is running out and the enemy is at the gates. If you have skills, a craft, or money, you will be lucky to be dragged off to Babylon; otherwise a citywide slaughter awaits you. The prophet’s role is to continually challenge the ruling king to follow God’s teachings of mercy, justice and compassion to all under his rule. But Zedekiah has finally jailed Jeremiah in exasperation, unwilling to tolerate the prophet’s incessant railing against Zedekiah’s corrupt governmental practices. Zedekiah is sick of hearing that there are logical consequences to disobeying God’s insistence on just and merciful governing.

Now imprisoned under palace guard, Jeremiah receives a word from God. In the chaos, a desperate relative of his needs to unload some property. Perhaps the relative is hoping to get his family out of Jerusalem and head south to Egypt before the impending doom. Lo and behold, his cousin Hanamel arrives, pleading, “buy my field at Anathoth; you’re my relative and have first right of refusal here.” But everyone is trying to leave, the Babylonians of Assyria are at the city gates; this land is basically worthless! God appears to be directing an unexpected, symbolic act to communicate with the people in crisis.

Jeremiah carefully proceeds with the seemingly unwise purchase, signs the deed, obtains the witnesses, weighs the money on the scale. With high drama, he has his personal scribe, Baruch, witness everything, and place the sealed deeds of purchase “in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time.” In the midst of the chaos, God directs Jeremiah to look forward. Jeremiah’s act reminds the people that God promises, in the middle of the uncertainty and pending dislocation, that “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” Houses, fields, vineyards…the stuff of fruitful existence. When everything is disintegrating around them, God plants seeds of future hope that makes life possible, stable and fruitful in their culture. Against all odds, there is the promise that they will once again dwell in the land of their ancestors.

I’ve been noticing the shortening of days this last week. Although few trees have started to turn and drop, the early morning and evening darkness casts a gloom. Autumn often brings me such ambivalence: it can be visually dramatic and beautiful, but I find myself bracing against the loss of greenness, the imbending bareness and cold of winter. As I thought about this paradox, I came upon some writings of the educator and author Parker Palmer. He described how we often focus on the surface appearance of autumn. We tend to think it is all about letting go, about loss, even about the demise of warmth and fruitfulness. “Summer’s abundance decays towards winter’s death.” But he also described how plants are also quietly doing something that we don’t often notice: the spreading of seeds. As plants die off, they drop a wild abundance of seeds that will become the new life in spring. Palmer cautions that we can often get fixed on the surface appearance of loss and decline among us, and miss the seeds of new life that are being planted.

Where do we see seeds of hope that might give us confidence in the future? Some expressions of Christianity focus a lot on one’s imagined future in heaven. It is a common misperception that today’s text from the Gospel of Luke is a cautionary tale about our future in the afterlife. Some have assumed these passages spell out that if we are rich and greedy and ignore the poor, we will go to some place of punishment. And if we are poor, we will go to some kind of heaven, into the bosom of the Hebrew patriarch Abraham. I don’t think this was Jesus’ point in telling this story. For Jesus, our confidence, our hope, in God’s good future lies in strengthening our resolve to participate in the good in this life. How might we bring hope to someone in need, someone who crosses our paths while we are living? Jesus asks his listeners and he proceeds to tell today’s parable.

Every day the rich man had a chance to be that hope to the poor man reduced to begging at his gate. But the man with the resources lived in a culture that conditioned him to ignore Lazarus sitting at his front door, because Lazarus would be considered ritually “unclean” with his open skin lesions and his constant contact with ritually “unclean” dogs. So often we talk sadly about “the poor” or the “disadvantaged.” We generalize about these people, making hopeless-sounding assumptions about their motivation or morals. We generalize about a lot of people, actually: “those teenagers,” “the elderly,” “those Muslims,” “that bad neighborhood,” “the druggies,” “those management people at work.” The rich man in the teaching parable never sees Lazarus for who he is. Focusing on the surface, we often express a futility of helping various groups. We lose track of the individuals, each with a separate personhood and unique need. And we lose track of our call to carry the hope of God’s good future to others.

I celebrate of the ways our church continues to bring our collective confidence and hope to the table. The confirmation class discusses the roots of homelessness in our Twin Cities, then encounters individual faces, specific families with kids, as we prepared and served a meal at House of Charity in Minneapolis yesterday. Jesus taught that we don’t develop a sense of compassion for those in need without actually “seeing” them. The generality of “homelessness” takes on human specifics; seeds of possibilities are planted in the minds of our youth. Another group in the church explores the implications of white priviledge as we read Jennifer Harvey’s “Dear White Christians” together. Parents share experiences of talking with their kids about racial inequity. Small seeds of deepened understanding scattered through our congregation. We welcome a panel discussion on community policing this Thursday, imagining a Falcon Heights slowly transforming into a safer, more just and respectful environment for all. We scatter these seeds of hope in the midst of frustration and grief over the national news. We become a seeds of hope for people who feel valueless and hopeless. This is us writing and acting in the next “act” of God healing the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.






God’s good pleasure

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — As we hear this text from Luke (Luke 12:22-32), I wonder how in the world humans can actually stop worrying. Perhaps you remember Bobby McFerrin’s song “Don’t Worry Be Happy” from the late 1980s. I found a music video online featuring McFerrin and Robin Williams, dancing around in funny costumes, both hilarious and poignant. The lyrics still sounded wonderfully encouraging and naïve: “Every life will have some trouble, if you worry you’ll make it double….don’t worry, be happy.” And I still find the song compelling…and darn near impossible to actually do. Simply not to worry and be happy. Was Jesus asking something ridiculous of his disciples? “Therefore, I tell you,” Jesus said to his disciples, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.” Food and clothes…okay…got that. But is it okay then to worry all the other stuff? Such as, people in my congregation, and the future of this church, racial tension, the spread of ISIS and vitriol in politics, and Zika…and don’t get me started on my two adult children in their early thirties….? What do you mean, “Don’t worry!”

In terms of our evolution as humans, worry seems to have a particular helpful function: If you hear a growl behind those trees, be worried! It may be a tiger sneaking up on you. Worried about making it through a long cold winter? A good incentive to storing up supplies and stockpiling that food. But for most of us, given our privilege of income, housing security, possibly the color of our skin, access to a paying job, most of us don’t have to worry about food and clothing too much. But we still wake up in the middle of the night, anxious and overwhelmed. What do you find that your worry about the most? Your health? Is about people you love? Someone you hate? Will my money run out before I do? Is it about a secret you have hidden? Our worries tell us a lot about who we are and our assumptions about the world. Our brain assumes if it is worrying, at least it is getting something done!

But it never really helps to simply tell someone, or ourselves, “Stop worrying.” I suspect Jesus knew this. Notice how he tells people to consider, to look carefully, at the wild lilies of the field, of which there are about 250 species in the Middle East. Closely examine the birds of the air, like this raven here. Is this just about giving our brain something else to do? Why did he pick something living, not an inanimate object, for us to consider? He didn’t say, consider this rock. Nor, consider this person. No…take a close, careful look at flowers and birds. In other places, Jesus teaches his disciples about prayer, about silence, about acknowledging their own powerlessness and affirming God’s power. But here, he says to look at flowers and birds. How did he know that contemplating the forces of nature shifts things in our brain?
A recent study by researchers at Stanford University seems to have proven Jesus’ observation. In this study, subjects took a 90-minute walk out in a forested or grassy setting, and others walked through busy city streets. One would expect that this might affect heart rate and general feeling of well-being, from the quiet alone. But researchers noticed something profound also happened in people’s brains when they walked in a natural setting: “Neural activity in a part of the prefrontal cortex decreased among participants who walked in nature versus those who walked in an urban environment.” This is the part of the brain region most active during rumination, or repetitive thought focusing on negative emotions. This worry activity apparently decreases when we are out walking in nature. (

In studies that have been replicated around the world, it appears that time spent in nature, considering the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, actually changes the activity in a region of our brain where we ruminate on ideas that bring up negative emotions—and makes us measurably calmer, happier and even more alert and smarter. Perhaps it is in nature, out in the wild, that we begin to get a sense of what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of “God’s good pleasure.” It may be something else we are absorbing out in the wild, be it our own backyard, a city park, quiet time on a lake or up in the Boundary Waters. Jesus put it this way: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The Kingdom of God: the ancient Hebrew phrase describing the rule of God on earth, characterized by compassion, justice and peace. Humans living out a life of mercy and loving community,

There are other studies that have found that people act more cooperatively, not just in their self-interest, after simply viewing nature videos. A study just out in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, by psychologist John M. Zelenski and several other colleagues from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, tests the idea that there’s a link between actually experiencing the natural world and behaving in a sustainable way. “We hypothesized that participants exposed to nature will make more cooperative, and thus sustainable, choices,” they wrote. And for those participants viewing nature videos, instead of photos of buildings, this was indeed what they found to be true.

“It is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” Jesus said to his closest followers. Jesus was picking up on the prophets’ call for a return to God’s reign, style of ruling, with equity for all. Jesus was not just talking about some interior moral kingdom in our hearts; and this is were we get distracted in our life together as Christians. Paradoxically, he taught that “the Kingdom of God is within you,” an animating force already inside of us. But he also described a world around us in which fairness and justice for everyone must rule. And this world would come about not with violence, like overthrowing Rome’s military might. Its power would come through nonviolence and mutual compassion.

Wendell Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things” may give us a flavor of what Jesus was getting at:


When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Our poets, and now modern science, agree: We are made more calm, relaxed and cooperative by our time spent considering the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. By our time spent simply carefully observing, enjoying, the natural world. By absorbing this incredible reality of a web of connection between us and all that is, growing, dying, being reborn, all around us. Perhaps we are actually better able to imagine, welcome, embrace God’s reign among us as we spend time “considering” nature around us, the greenness, the fluffy clouds against blue sky, the sun sparkling on a lake, plump fruit and ripe vegetables. God’s good pleasure: All gifts of deep summer in Minnesota that, when carefully considered, actually heal our brains and calm our worry; God’s good pleasure—gifts that are now, for us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Exploring our expectations of our new pastor

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift….The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the Body of Christ. (Ephesians 4:7, 11-12)

In a few minutes, your Pastoral Search Committee will welcome you into the Gathering Room for some guided conversations. They want to hear about your hopes and expectations of your new pastor.

Perhaps you have heard the story of the “perfect” pastor? This person has the energy and vitality of a 25-year-old, combined with about 35 years of ministry experience. A real people person, the perfect pastor is always available in the church office, but spends most of the time out visiting people and connecting the church to the wider community.

Depending on age or the generation you identify with, the perfect pastor may still be male. Heterosexual male. The perfect pastor is certainly not out on the dating scene, but is in a calm, low-maintenance marriage that seldom requires being home for dinner and in the evening. The pastor has a couple of well-behaved, self-sufficient kids and a stay-at-home wife who volunteers for all sorts of things at church. But somehow she also works full-time, and her health care benefits package covers the whole family! Sort of a 1950s-style pastor for a 2016 church.

Even if this leader is a woman, the perfect pastor is somehow “all things to all people,” leads appealing programming for the Millennials and young families, and spends most of her time with church elders, tender end-of-life issues, and skilled nursing and hospital visits. “The perfect pastor knows what I am thinking, without me saying it,” we might say to ourselves. “He preaches sermons that give me answers to tough questions but doesn’t push his own view. She speaks out for social justice but without ruffling any feathers…and never sounds political.” Okay, I’ll stop now!

Debates about perfect pastoral leadership have been going on for a long time, going back to the beginning of the early church. Certain men and women emerged with gifts for leading and guiding the people following Jesus’ Way. In this passage from the Letter to the Ephesians, we hear the early church leader Paul describe some of the gifts of ministry that he saw among these leaders. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers. These last two gifts, of being pastors and teachers, are the two roles United Church of Christ clergy promise to bring into our ministry when we are ordained. Paul says an interesting thing about these gifts of ministry: They are not for entertainment purposes, obviously, nor are they for the personal comfort of those ministered to. God gives gifts of ministry in order to “equip the saints for the work of ministry.” Who are the saints? For Paul, that was everyone who sought to follow the Way of Jesus. That would be all of us. Not just the perfect people, but all of us imperfect people. Saints who are sinners. My gift and my job as your pastor, a saint and a sinner like you, is to equip you for the work of ministry.

What is the ministry? Notice that it is not my gift or my role to do the work of ministry. Or more bluntly: It’s not my job to be a Christian for you. The job of your clergy leader is to equip, train up, encourage, empower you to do the work of the Risen Christ’s ministry here, in your daily lives, in this time. To help you deepen your sense of connection with the God of the universe, to help you grow in trust of God, and to follow the teachings and Living Spirit of Jesus Christ. To enable you to better be about sharing God’s love and healing in the world.

Here’s the question for today’s discussion: What kind of equipping do you need? How do you want your new pastor to do this? Particularly in our worship life together, in liturgy and sermons, in our study groups and discussions, what do you need from a pastor and teacher among you? What works best for you, to equip you for the work of ministry in the world? May God bless and guide our conversations together.